Will the challenges wrought by Covid push low-income families too far?
Children falling asleep at their desks, teachers washing their pupils’ school uniforms, kids being sent into school with a packet of crisps for lunch, and given paper at the end of the day because there won’t be any at home.
None of these examples of deprivation come as a surprise to the nation’s schoolteachers, who are often the first to pick up on signs that a child is living in poverty.
Staff say that after a few years in the job they tend to stop being shocked by children’s poor nutrition, their tiredness and inadequate, dirty clothing – but they don’t ever become numb to it.
Worryingly, though, they describe a stagnancy, in terms of seeing the same issues coming round year after year. They don’t get markedly worse – but nor is there any improvement. This is despite a political commitment a decade ago to try to end child poverty in 2020, via the 2010 Child Poverty Act.
Teachers’ experiences, as told to The House magazine, are a powerful reminder that child poverty in the UK remains a serious issue.
To go through some of the facts, there were 4.2 million children living in relative child poverty in the UK in 2018-19, which is 30% of all children, according to data collected by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Last autumn, the End Child Poverty campaign found that even before Covid-19, there was an increase in child poverty numbers, particularly in the north-east of England and London; and according to the Social Mobility Commission, by 2022, 5.2 million children are expected to be living in poverty.
A secondary school teacher working in Gateshead said: “A child recently kept falling asleep in lessons. It turned out they shared a room with four other siblings and rarely got much sleep. They rarely ate breakfast, either, and so had no energy when they were at school.
“Another family didn’t have a washing machine so the technology department would wash and dry their uniform for them on a morning so they had clean clothes for school.
“I do think parents spend their money in different ways, too, to try and cover this up. So they might sacrifice food for a nice phone. It is sad, but they feel like they have to hide it because they’re ashamed.”
A primary school teacher working in South Yorkshire said: “We have a collection of school uniforms for the children to use because we’ve had a number of cases where children come into school with tattered shoes, in the middle of winter. No jumpers either.
“And we always provide paper and pens for all the children who need it… and we have a lot of takers.”
Laura*, a secondary school English teacher who has worked in schools around West Yorkshire and the Greater Manchester area for the past 10 years, said: “I buy pens because lots don’t have their own. I have kids complaining of being hungry and when I ask them why, they say they haven’t had lunch and there’s no food at home. Some children do look malnourished.
“I’ve had kids struggling to stay awake because of cramped sleeping conditions at home because of younger siblings. There’s lots of dark circles around their eyes.
“There’s children who have shoes that are falling apart, or clothes that are dirty or too small.”
Asked if she thinks there’s been any improvement to the wellbeing of a school’s very poorest children in her decade of teaching, she said there had not, adding: “It’s always been like this. It’s heartbreaking because you feel helpless, and I wish I could do more for these children. I have cried about it, driving home from work.”
The government was often able to point to the fact that absolute poverty levels were declining when discussing child poverty but, in recent years, numbers have stayed at a stable rate of around 2.4 million children. The coalition also tried to tackle child poverty by introducing universal free school meals (FSM) for all infants, which was seen as a positive step.
Boris Johnson’s administration is also at pains to point out that spending on working-age welfare in 2020 was – at over £100bn – was the highest level on record, both in real terms and as a percentage of national income, while the Healthy Start scheme payments for pregnant women and those with children under four to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, milk or vitamins, is set to increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021.
However, in the last six months the government has had to confront issues around childhood hunger very publicly, with Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign forcing them to provide free school meals during the summer holidays.
It was continued during the autumn term, and Christmas holidays, but food over the February half-term will come out of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme. In January, sub-standard food parcels with meagre ingredients being sent to the poorest families until a voucher scheme kicked in hit the headlines.
And Johnson’s own mentions of child poverty have not always gone down well. His claim in the summer that the number of children in poverty had fallen 400,000 was found to be incorrect and had no basis in fact, in a judgment by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR).
He is facing pressure from Labour and charities to maintain the universal credit uplift of £20 per week, which was introduced to help families cope with the costs of Covid, beyond March, and Child Poverty Action Group wants to see a £10 increase in child benefit.
For Steven*, a London primary school teacher working in a mixed income and ethnically diverse school, lack of food is an issue his pupils face on a regular basis, reflecting on children who aren’t on FSM being given large bags of crisps or a packet of doughnuts for their lunch.
Sleep is another big issue. Steven says: “They come in and say they’ve been sharing a bed, and there’s three or four of them in a room and their older brothers or sisters have come home from a night out with their mates and woken them up.”
He says he’s had children fall asleep in lessons, at which point there’s no point trying to push them, and he lets them nap in peace in another part of the school. Though that’s when there’s a phone-call home.
However, the pandemic has brought new challenges, especially around tiredness and concentration.
A looming problem is the impact of the hours and hours pupils have spent on screens playing computer games while schools have been shut. Often children are tired because an older sibling is playing the console at night, keeping them awake, Steven says.
“[Computer games] will be our biggest challenge. We noticed in September concentration was a big problem, and patience too. Children are used to such an immediate world that [they lack] any resilience to follow a task through if they’re finding it hard.
“Online now, they’re posting questions if they can’t do something, without thinking through stuff.”
According to The Children’s Society, too few people seem to be aware that the threshold for free school meals is an income of only £7,400 a year. This means many families who earn very little still need to meet meals costs of around £100 a month for two children.
Likewise when it comes to school uniform, the requirements from different schools vary enormously and can be another burdensome cost for families who earn just enough to keep them out of the very low income categories, and so don’t qualify for clothing grants.
Azmina Siddique, Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, said child poverty is a growing issue the government cannot ignore, and that some of the ways in which they maintain they’re helping children are not sustainable.
Increasing child benefit or the child tax element of universal credit by £10 per week, and scrapping the benefit cap, could give a “generation of children hope they will not be left struggling in poverty”.
She said: “The money given to councils, most recently via the Winter Covid Grant, to help those struggling as a result of the pandemic has provided a much-needed safety net for thousands.
“However, it is misleading for the government to suggest this investment is enough to help families struggling financially, including with the ongoing costs of feeding their children. Local welfare assistance is designed to give a one-off emergency payment during times of crisis. That is why it is vital the government also invests in targeted support such as free school meals and does not try to say that providing funding for one overrides the need for the other.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are committed to making sure every child gets the best start in life, and this is central to our steadfast determination to level up opportunity across the country. That’s why we’ve targeted our support to families most in need by raising the living wage and spending hundreds of billions to safeguard jobs.
“Additionally, we have boosted welfare support by billions, introduced the £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme to help children and families during the coldest months and expanded our successful Holiday Activities and Food programme to cover all the major school holidays in 2021.”
*Names have been changed.